Saturday, February 28, 2009

1962: "Hollywood Musicals are BIG Again"

Saving The Movie Musical - Again. Is it Too Late?
One of the more absurd segments of the recent Oscarcast was a deranged extravaganza, created by the dreadful Baz Luhrmann, ostensibly celebrating the return of the movie musical.

Yeah, pure fantasy.

The best Hollywood can do these days is produce one musical a year. Actually, 2007 produced two - Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and Adam Shankman's "Hairspray."

Next up: Jim Carey and Jake Gyllenhaall in a planned, "contemporized" remake of Adler-Ross's Damn Yankees," with no one yet set for Lola, the female lead. That probably won't make it to the screen until, say, 2010. Which means there will be no movie musicals in 2009. None. Nada.

Face it: Musicals have been struggling in Hollywood for years - nay, decades. Back in August of 1962, the cover story of LOOK magazine was about - yes - the big comeback of the movie musical. The movie year 1959 produced only Otto Preminger's "Porgy and Bess" and Melvin Frank's "Li'l Abner," neither of which seemed to excite moviegoers.

Matters didn't look good back then.

A year later, in 1960, there was Walter Lang's embarrassing "Can-Can" and Vincente Minnelli's pleasing "Bells Are Ringing." The Minnelli film wasn't a huge success but you can see how the director sensed that the the movie musical was on its last leg and he experimented accordingly to make it more palatable for audiences. The next time you see it, check out how Minnelli's staging invigorates the "I Met a Girl" number by having star Dean Martin sing it while fighting his way through sidewalk traffic, and he turns "Mu-Cha-Cha" into a pseudo-musical number by eschewing the song's lyric and staging the dance in an off-the-cuff, improvistory manner.

Matters were so dire that when Joshua Logan brought "Fanny" to the screen in 1961, he reduced the Harold Rome score to background music. But, the same year, there was a turaround, albeit a brief one, for the musical with the success of Henry Koster's "Flower Drum Song" and Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins' Oscar-winning "West Side Story."

These two prompted Hollywood to hanker down and produce José Ferrer's remake of "State Fair," Morton Da Costa's "The Music Man," Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy," Chalres Walters' "Jumbo" (that's Doris Day and Martha Raye, above, in a scene from the film) and George Sidney's "Bye, Bye Birdie" over the next two years - as a group a hook for the LOOK magazine piece, titled "Hollywood Musicals Are BIG Again."

Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce," on the other hand, went the "Fanny" route, sans Marguerite Monnot and Alexandré Breffort's fabulous songs (most of it adapted as background/mood music by André Previn).

Since then, Hollywood has tried different ways to rehabilitate the genre. Logan put both "Camelot" and "Paint Your Wagon" on film with strictly A-list casts; when Roger Corman produced the film of "A Little Night Music," as insurance, he stayed with its stage director, Harold Prince (the ploy didn't work; the film didn't click); when "The Wiz," "Annie" and "A Chorus Line" were made, the studios entrusted them to serious filmmakers - Sidney Lumet, John Huston and Sir Richard Attenborough, respectively.

Nothing worked. The critics disapproved and audiences stayed away.

Yes, there were sporadic, near-freak hits - Wise's "The Sound of Music" and Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" (two films I don't particularly like), Randall Kleiser's "Grease" (a film which has more than worn out its welcome) and Colin Higgins' "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (I like it actually).

Still, these were few and far between. The film musical has never really bounced back. After all these years - nearly 50, by my count - it's still struggling to be accepted again, accepted unconditionally.

Getting back to the planned remake of "Damn Yankees," who will - could - play Lola? Who? Well, almost any of the following talented actresses, all of whom are age-appropriate for Gyllenhaall: Amanda Seyfried, Amy Adams, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, Amanda Bynes, Anne Hathaway, Evan Rachel Wood, Rachel McAdams, Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson. Personally, I'd go with either McAdams or Deschanel.


jkaiser said...

What about Anne Hathaway for Lola?

joe baltake said...

Look closely. I mentioned Anne. My only problem with her and Amy Adams is that they both seem too, well, pure. I'd love to see Zooey Deschanel, who has a great voice, or Rachel McAdams, who was once up for the role of the daughter in "Mamma Mia!," so I assume she can sing. But that's no pre-requisite for me. I prefer someone be well-cast in a musical film, not necessarily a great or even good singer. There's nothing wrong with dubbing. It's as old as movies themselves. (Besides, everyone ends up lip-syncing anyway, if only to their own voice; Streisand is a great singer but a very bad lip-syncer. Check out "Funny Girl," if you need proof.) And if a person does his or her own singing and hits a bad note every now and then, so what. I love the idea of movie stars singing - like Hepburn in "Funny Face." Much better than what they did to her in "My Fair Lady."

Kevin Deany said...

I think there's one musical coming at the end of the year - the film version of "Nine".

Quite a cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson and Sophia Loren.

Directed by Rob Marshall,I only hope the fast cutting is kept at a minimum and we can actually see some dancing on screen, instead of the illusion of dancing made through the cuts.

joe baltake said...


"Nine"! How could I have fogotten that title? Am I trying to block it or something? Nah. I'm actually looking forward to it - although I wich Bardem hadn't backed out. I'm thrilled with the idea of Day-Lewis in it, but it should be a kick nevertheless to see him in a musical.

Daryl Chin said...

Yes, i was going to mention NINE, since it ahs been getting a lot of pre-production press because of the cast (originally, the Weinsteins had cast Javier Bardem, who backed out because the process was taking too long and he took another job; with an Oscar-winning leading man gone, the Weinsteins seemed to have decided if they couldn't get 2007's Best Supporting Actor, they'd go with the Best Actor, and went after Daniel Day-Lewis, who then started intensive vocal lessons; Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench were also last-minute replacements, though Sophia Loren was always set, and the sugar to sweeten that pot was La Loren gets a whole - new - number all to herself). Also in the cast is Fergie from the Black-Eyed Peas.

But there have been some charming indie musicals of late. One i can think of is COLMA: THE MUSICAL; another is WERE THE WORLD MINE.

I'm surprised that Jake Gyllenhaal was cast: my choice would have been Ryan Gosling, because (obviously) he can sing and dance (since he started out as a Mouseketter, at the same time as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake, in the last incarnation of the Mickey Mouse Club).

And i also agree about movie stars and singing: Natalie Wood did her own singing in GYPSY, and hre voice (which cracks a lot) is charming; Audrey Hepburn sounded much better with her own voice in FUNNY FACE (has anyone ever sang "How Long Has This Been Going On?" with more poignance?), and one of the extras on the DVD of the 1951 SHOWBOAT has the tracks of Ava Gardner doing her own singing, and those tracks have the sensuality that Gardner brought to her singing of "Comin' Through the Rye" in MOGAMBO (where she was allowed to use her own voice). If movie stars have distinctive voices (and most do), then it's always better to hear them do their own singing, because it completes their performance.

(Arthur Laurents is coming up with a revival of WEST SIDE STORY on Broadway: the joke on the Rialto is that he's going to put his stamp on all the musicals he's ever written but other people - Jerome Robbins, Hal Prince - directed. However, if someone does a remake of WEST SIDE STORY, why not cast Ryan Gosling as Tony and Christina Aguilera as Maria?)

joe baltake said...


1. Isn't it curious how Arthur Laurents himself has turned into a veritable Mama Rose? I mean, he seems really grasping with his shows, way beyond protective. I personally think he suffocates them. He shouldn't be allowed near them. I keep thinking of what Sam Mendes would have done with "Gypsy" had Laurents not interferred. It could have been a revolutionary version.

2. Re Tony in your imaginary new film version of WSS, I like the idea of Gosling but why not Timberlake? He certainly has a certain innate toughness that's been strangely absent from everyone else who ever played the role. Too bad Jennifer Lopez is too old for the role; she'd make an ideal Maria.

jkaiser said...

Daniel Day Lewis in a musical? Is part of his prep for it singing everything instead of talking?

Carrie said...

Why does Lola have to be age-appropriate for Gyllenhaal? Wasn't Gwen Verdon many years older than Tab Hunter? I'd go with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Lola. I think Hathaway could do it, too -- she's got the va-va and the voom and the voice. And I agree with Joe and Daryl about movie stars singing. Who is more listenable-to than Audrey Hepburn? ("How Long Has This Been Going On" is swoony.) Fred Astaire, who didn't have what we think of as a professional voice, is a more entertaining singer on screen than Bing Crosby, no?

joe baltake said...


You're right about Zeta-Jones being a first-rate choice for Lola. Personally, I'd like to see her play Rose in "Gypsy." For once, it would be nice if that part was cast with an age-approprite actress and not someone in her 60s. Still, re "Damn Yankees," I'd love to see Deschanel or McAdam (especially) tackle it.

wwolfe said...

Very late response - I'm still catching up with stuff I missed while I was on vacation.

In your view, were "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help" musicals? I think they were, albeit of the the pre-"Oklahoma" school, where the songs for the most part were simply songs, not vehicles for plot and character development. If indeed these two were musicals, then they have to be counted among the more successful, both musically and financially, in the post-1950s era. They also might have served as sign posts for the direction Hollywood might have taken toward a re-newed acceptance of movie musicals. (Although perhaps not, since few rock and roll-era performers could approach Lennon and McCartney's ability to produce a high quality score.)

In a very different vein, "The Fabulous Baker Boys" could almost be seen as a musical. While a very good movie, I tend to see it as a movie about musicians, rather than a musical. That's a distinction I can't quite define, but it feels right, for whatever that's worth.

joe baltake said...


Yes, I consider anything by Elvis, Pat Boone and The Beatles to be a musical, although not a traditional musical. For me, a real musical is when someone bursts out into song in a real-life scene, not on a stage or in a club. I love both "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!," but it seems to me that most of the Beatles songs in those two films were used in lieu of regular background music. Correct me if I'm wrong. David Byrne's "True Stories" is definitely a new-style musical, at once traditional and very radical. "The Fabulous Baker Boys" is more along the lines of "Pal Joey" and "Cabaret," two films where all the numbers (except for one "Joey") are performed in a stage/club setting.

wwolfe said...


I agree with your opinion on the Beatles' musicals. And I like the comparison of "Baker Boys" to "Pal Joey" - very apt. In fact, that would be a terrific double bill. Somehow, I forgot all about "True Stories." I'm not a big Talking Heads/David Byrne fan, but I found that movie to be fun and light on its feet. Byrne and John Goodman made a good vaudeville team.

joe baltake said...

And it's really a good musical, "True Stories," that is. It has a terrific score and the eccentric characters sing just about anywhere. Very watchable film. Check it out again. It's improved with age.